We are currently observing what appears to be a rise in conspiracy theory thinking in the UK. Facebook groups dedicated to anti-vaccination and anti-5G conspiracy theories are growing by the thousands, and people across the country have been so motivated by their ideas that they have taken to sabotaging phone masts, fearing that they are the cause of the ongoing pandemic. The 5G conspiracy theory is just one among many that have followed the pandemic; belief in the virus as a bio-weapon released intentionally by the Chinese state, or that it is part of a plan to depopulate the planet by the UN, are other ideas that are currently circulating.
Support for conspiracy theories tends to rise in volatile and uncertain times like the one we are in. These ideas can provide solace by providing someone or something to blame and give a form of explanation to people’s hardship. When large, world-changing events take place we seek meaning, and often intent behind what is going on. Simple accidents often do not suffice as explanations. At the same time, the current conditions are easily exploited by conspiracy theorists for political or monetary purposes.
It is, however, a bitter irony that the time when accurate information and unity is needed the most is also the time when we are particularly vulnerable conspiracy theories. When all levels of society, from individuals to governments to corporations need to do what they can to stave off the spread of the virus, it is also a time when it is especially easy to make minorities into scapegoats.
However, while the specific fears of radio towers and Chinese bioweapons are clearly a product of the current pandemic, it would be disingenuous to argue that these feelings arose out of nowhere. Ultimately, much of the political cynicism, and the distrust in politicians, media and experts, was already there. The current situation does, however, exaggerate these existing problems.
It is only through a thorough understanding of both the threat and allure of conspiracy theory, alongside the reasons some are susceptible to it, that we can meaningfully begin to tackle it. For that reason, HOPE not to hate has conducted a series of polls over the last months on the British populations’ attitude towards conspiracy theories and trust in the political system.
WHAT IS CONSPIRACY THEORY
Michael Barkun defines a conspiracy theory as “the belief that an organisation made up of individuals or groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end” in his book A Culture of Conspiracy. A brief look in a history book reveals many actual conspiracies, where small groups of people conspire in secret to cause harm or change society in a direction they prefer. Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot or, more recently, the Watergate affair are two examples of real conspiracies. Believing that they happened does not make you a conspiracy theorist in most people’s eyes; the the conspiracy theories we are concerned about are of a different sort. The fact that conspiracies have, and will likely continue to happen, makes drawing the line between problematic belief in conspiracies and legitimate doubt in the official story not entirely straightforward.
The conspiracy theories we are concerned with reject official versions of events and tend to assume that there is direct intent behind most major events and news stories. As such they tend to increase in popularity during times of turmoil as they are, at the core, built on a foundation of mistrust and look for meaning and connections between seemingly random events. At their worst, they find scapegoats for large structural issues in already vulnerable minorities.
Conspiracy theories are notoriously difficult to disprove because of what Harvard professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule call their “self-sealing quality”. In other words, attempts to debunk a conspiracy theory are often perceived as covert attempts to undermine the “truth”. It allows conspiracy theorists to take evidence that seems to disprove the theory, and turn it into support for it instead. Attempts by academics and mainstream media to counter the theory reaffirms the idea that the conspiracy theorists are victims of a conspiracy seeking to silence them. To use elitist institutions would, after all, be exactly what the conspirators would do in order to suppress dissent.
A well-executed conspiracy should by definition not leave evidence. This opens up for the possibility of reading intent and meaning into seemingly unrelated bits of information and, according to Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, it is a common bias for conspiracy theorists. When big, world-changing events take place we are prone to seek out proportionally large explanations and clear intent, rather than being the result of a chaotic and messy world where most events are often best explained by a series of intertwined chances and mistakes. For example, the ongoing pandemic has been explained by conspiracy theorists in various ways: a Chinese bio-weapon, as a part of the Agenda 21 “depopulation” plan orchestrated by the UN, or as an effect of the new 5G network. These are vastly different theories, but they are joined by the premise there is an intent behind the pandemic.
Explaining disturbing but ultimately random events as though they fit into a greater narrative can be comforting and give a sense of control. Not only do even traumatic events become imbued with meaning, but the believer can convince themselves that they have understood something that others have not. There is empowerment in the belief that one has seen behind the curtain and knows how the puzzle fits together. In that sense there is an elitist streak in some conspiracists’ beliefs, although a definition of conspiracy theory is incomplete without discussing their anti-elitist elements as well.
One could imagine that in tumultuous and uncertain times most would turn away from conspiracy theory instead of towards it, discarding their suspicion of corruption among elites and instead putting their faith in the stability and consistency of the state. But as Rob Brotherton wrote in his book, Suspicious Minds: “The best conspiracy theories have all the trappings of a classic underdog story”. An important aspect of conspiracy theory is mistrust in elites and the political system. Even seemingly apolitical stories, such as questioning whether the Moon landings took place, direct suspicion against the intention of the US government.
In other words, a fundamental aspect of conspiracy theory is mistrust. As we will see in our polling, the most conspiracy theory-minded individuals are those that already mistrust the state and the political system the most. People who mistrust politics and feel left behind are more vulnerable to conspiracy theory belief. While there might be a desire to laugh at and attribute conspiracy to irrational thinking, itmisses the point that conspiracy theory helps contextualise an already existing lack of trust, and that some conspiracy theories might feel more in-line with one’s own experience than the official story. This is likely further exaggerated when the topic of debate is as complex as a pandemic where we inevitably have to place our trust in experts and the official advice is subject to change.
THE HARM OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Some of the harm that conspiracy theories can cause are evidently clear in times of a pandemic. Similar to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories which prevent people and their children from getting protection for common diseases, ideas that COVID-19 is actually not a disease stemming from a virus but caused by radio waves or is a hoax entirely are clearly harmful. For example, there is evidence that refusal to take vaccines has led to measles outbreaks that would otherwise have been prevented. The fear of vaccines or a faulty idea of the cause of disease prevents people from seeking healthcare when they need it, which harms the individual and can cause the virus to spread faster. It also leads people to misdirect their anger and frustration. Harassing telecom workers and sabotaging cellphone towers across the UK, and therefore looking past genuine social ills, derails opportunities to affect real and beneficial change.
To paralyse social progress through sheer confusion and chaos is some of the more subtle, but still severe, harm done by conspiracy theory; their ability to misdirect action or incapacitate makes them into serious threats to our democratic society. In the age of social media, it also floods the news cycle with misinformation which obscures truth and hampers reasoned debate. This is why Peter Pomerantsev at the London School of Economics calls the spread of conspiracy theory a form of propaganda. Surrounding people with “so much cynicism that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative” is a way to stave off dissent as “[t]he ultimate effect of this endless pile-up of conspiracies is that you, the little person, can never change anything”. While this might not be the intention behind the conspiracy theories discussed in this report – to suggest that would itself be a conspiracy theory – the effect remains.
Our polling for this report shows that conspiracy theorists rarely hold just one conspiracy theory to be true. Once trust in mainstream sources is low, a reasonable shift is to put the trust in oneself and one’s own research, something the internet and social media are exceptionally well suited for. This feeling is already widespread: our polling shows that 42% of the respondents say that they prefer to find the truth out about Coronavirus themselves “rather than relying on the Government and their experts”. As such, susceptibility to conspiracy thinking can be a gateway into darker territories, including more extreme ideas such as conspiratorial antisemitism.
This is also part of what makes conspiracy theories attractive. As David Lawrence from HOPE not hate writes “There is a frisson that accompanies uncovering supposedly forbidden information, and the sense that one is unravelling some hidden scheme can be addictive”.
Most worrying, however, is the use of conspiracy theories as a tool to attack minority groups. While the conspirators vary between different theories, there is one group in particular that has for centuries faced blame for an enormous variety of upheavals, tragedies and calamities, both historical and mythic. Antisemitism is central to conspiracy theory to such a degree that, sometimes, the role of the supposed Jewish conspirators is implicitly understood and does not need to be named. Implicit antisemitic undertones of a theory can therefore be discussed without risk of deterring those without the same understanding. That is not to say that outright Jew-hatred is hard to find. Antisemitic tropes are rarely far removed from a diverse array of conspiratorial notions concerning, for example, 9/11, the refugee crisis or even climate change, and made relatively clear in the conspiracy theories surrounding Jewish philanthropist George Soros and the Rothschild family.
The persistence of antisemitism within the 21stcentury conspiracy scene partly stems from its status as a “taboo”. As Barkun writes, for many conspiracy theorists “the greater the stigma, the more attractive the source becomes, for the intensity of rejection is its truthfulness”.
COUNTERING CONSPIRACY THEORY
Always, and especially in times of crisis, it is vital that we can critique our leaders, to prevent these times turning into opportunities to limit our rights and freedoms – as has already been the case in Hungary. Conspiracy theory is however vastly different from reasoned critique and scrutiny and, if anything, risks standing in the way of rather than helping such an effort.
While it is easy to discard conspiracy theory as harmless and eccentric, its threat should not be taken lightly. Doing so requires us to look at belief in conspiracy theory in multiple different ways, from how it spreads to what could make one vulnerable to it. How to tackle conspiracy theory is not a question purely concerned with the transmission of information but with what conspiracy theory gives to people and why some find it more attractive than others. The role of conspiracy theory as a community and how it provides meaning and explanation in bewildering times are factors that need to be taken into account.